How to design an original sci-fi character

McClean Kendree reveals how to design your very own sci-fi character from scratch.

sci fi lady

I opt to depict an alien character with humanoid anatomy. It'd be interesting to make her clearly alien, but to also try and make her attractive to the human eye.

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From the outset I'm keen to ensure a strong colour contrast between her skin tone and the colour of her uniform. I want to incorporate more tribal aspects into her costume, as if she had crash-landed somewhere and was adjusting to the environment.

However, as the character evolves I tone this approach down. This idea is still there in small amounts, from the feathers collected and fastened into her sleeve, to the hand-made stone knife lashed to her belt. I decide to pass on doing more than that though, because her anatomy is already going in a forest-looking direction. If not for her sci-fi outfit, she could pass as a magical forest inhabitant.

My original idea is a balance of future clothes and nature, and I think if I'd started to add leaves and animal hides to her costume, then the sci-fi element could have gotten muddled or buried. For the sake of this article I simplify the rendering style.

01. Start Sketching

sketch scifi

 My first thumbnails usually don't make sense to anyone but me, so they don't get shown to clients yet. I don't even know what some of the shapes are going to be yet – I'm just putting them down if I think they look cool or promising. I'm also trying to find the gesture or attitude of the character at this stage, because it's tough to inject those qualities later.

02.  Redraw, redraw, redraw

sci fi lady

As I redraw the design I try to figure out what those shapes could be. I change course a couple of times, most notably when I had giant leaves stitched together on her lower legs, and switched them out for mechanical parts. Ultimately I push her outfit so that it's more recognisably sci-fi, instead of getting complicated with too many tribal-looking modifications.

03.  Block it out

sci fi blocked out

Once I'm happy with the line drawing, I block in the silhouette of the character in a single flat tone. Next I create a Multiply layer and paint in the shadows. If I wait to do this until after local colours have been blocked in, I could become distracted and forget to put in certain shadows. I keep different colour elements on their own layers, in case I change my mind later on.

04.  Add layers

final sci fi alien lady

My current favourite way to quickly paint form on a character is by using a Linear Dodge layer, and just painting the form over the entire character with the same colour, in a similar fashion to how I did it earlier with the shadows. I also apply a gradient to the entire character to darken her toward the bottom, so as to help her head and torso pop with contrast.

Artist's secret: Rendering

sci fi lady secret

Rendering looks great, and can get you lots of praise from peers and clients. However, when you’re on the job, pick your battles. You don’t need to render a character’s feet to the same painstaking degree as you painted their face. Sometimes it even looks better that way.

Words: McLean Kendree

An ImagineFX Rising Stars winner in 2011, Mclean Kendree now works at Kabam studios, and has produced concept art for THQ, Hasbro and 38 Studios. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 98.

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